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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Life-Changing Words

When I was in my first year of university I read a sermon by theologian Paul Tillich entitled “You Are Accepted.”
Paul Tillich

“Sometimes … a wave of light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying, ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for that name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.’ If that happens to us, we experience grace.”  (Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, 162)

Forty years ago, these words changed my life. When I read them, it was as if the scales fell from my eyes and I could see. In a flash, the Christian message that I had been hearing since childhood all made sense. It was grace, all grace. Whatever I had done, whatever I had failed to do made no difference to God’s love for me.  These words, and Paul’s Letter to the Romans on which they are based, set me free. I’ve been living out that change ever since.
Sometimes we hear something that radically changes our perspective and causes us to see everything in a new light.

I had a similar experience, not quite as intense, but still significant, reading words by Peter
Peter Drucker
Drucker, the legendary business management guru. Drucker writes about the difference between profit-making businesses and not-for-profit organizations, including churches. (He calls them “social sector” organizations.)

Both kinds of organizations produce things. A business’s products, he says, are whatever goods and services it makes that it sells to customers to generate profits.

But what is the “product” of a not-for-profit? A church? Drucker’s answer:  “Transformed individuals.” The “product” of not-for-profit organizations is the change that they bring about in people’s lives.

This completely altered the way I looked at the church and my role as a minister. It is so deeply ingrained to think of church as producing religious or spiritual “goods and services” (programs, activities, services) that we provide to “customers” in order to keep them satisfied. (If you don’t agree, try suggesting that you stop providing some of your church’s most treasured goods and services, and see what the reaction is.)

But Drucker helped me see that our job is not to produce goods and services that people consume. And our measure of success is not how much our customers are willing to “pay” for them (with their money and participation) or how happy they are.

Our task, our mission, is to bring about change in people’s lives – the change promised by the Gospel.
Now, not everybody wants to be changed.  People may want things to be different, but they don’t want to change themselves. Often, in fact, they look to the church to enable them to stay just the way they are. In effect, they see the church’s role as sheltering them from the need to change.

And some people have a pre-packaged idea of what “being changed” means. I’ve met charismatics, for instance, who believe that a real Christian is someone who has been baptized in the Spirit and received the gift of tongues. If that hasn’t happened, it means you haven’t changed. You’re still the same old sinner.

But there’s room for a much more diverse and open understanding of what a changed individual might be. We see people being changed in our churches all the time. The lonely find belonging. The angry find the ability to forgive. The guilt-ridden find the ability to be forgiven. The prejudiced find understanding. The confused find a purpose.  The fearful find peace. The discouraged find hope. These changes are transformative.

The shift that needs to occur is for churches to begin putting transformed lives ahead of programs run, money raised, bums in seats, peace and tranquillity as the metrics of success. Granted, they’re harder to measure, but when it happens, the change unmistakable.

Our mission is to see people’s lives changed by the life-changing message of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Peace Be With You

Most churches agree that they should reach out into the community beyond their church. But how do you do that? What does it look like? Where do you start?

Easy to say. Hard to do.

We might find some guidance in Luke 10: 1-11. Jesus sends seventy of his followers out to the towns and villages to announce the presence of the Kingdom in preparation for Jesus’ arrival. This passage is about meeting people where they are, not where we are. It’s about going out, not waiting for people to come in. It’s about receiving hospitality from our culture, not just giving hospitality. It’s about travelling light, not weighed down with all sorts of “baggage.” It’s about offering the peace of the Gospel and not worrying about whether people will accept it or not. It’s about believing that God is already active in people’s lives, and the church needs to catch up to what God is doing.

For that reason, many think it’s an important text for the church to understand and follow today.  
Jesus told his followers, “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ If
anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.” (Luke 10:5-6)
I wonder – what would it mean for us today to say “Peace to this house”?

In Hebrew and Arabic, “Peace be with you” -- Shalom aleichem, Salaam aleikum – is an everyday greeting, like “Hello, how are you” is for us.  “Passing the peace” in church can be just a ritualized way of saying “Good morning.”

But something tells me Jesus had more in mind here than just a polite greeting when he told his followers to go out with an offer of peace. It is really an invitation to be open to the powerful presence of God. They were not "just words" but words that conveyed the reality of God's peace. 

But again – How are we to imagine what that might look like for us today? Surely, we’re not going to literally knock on people’s doors, invite ourselves in and say “Peace be on this house.” 

I got a little glimpse of what might be involved today in saying “Peace to this house” through a conversation that I witnessed several years ago when I was waiting to have laser surgery on my eyes.

I got my first pair of glasses when I was 8 and my first pair of contact lenses when I was 18. After 35 years, my contacts were starting to bother me and I hate wearing glasses, so I decided to go for corrective laser surgery.

The clinic I went to was a bit of an assembly line. The day I went there about 20 patients waiting for cataract or laser surgery in one afternoon. We were all given blue hair nets and stretchy covers for our shoes, and we were herded  into a room to wait our turn.

The tension in the room was pretty high. After all, we were about to have sharp things stuck in our eyes.

No one was saying much. We were all looking down at our blue booties. Then one older lady said to a younger woman sitting beside her, “So, dear, what do you do? Are you in school?”

The young woman was a little taken aback. “Uh, no,” she replied. “I work.”

“Oh, and where do you work? At a store?”

“No, I own my own business.”

“Really? Good for you. You’re so young. What kind of business is it?”

“Well, actually, I own a tattoo parlour.”

Without missing a beat, the older lady said, “That is so interesting.” And then she asked a number of questions. Where is it? How many employees do you have? Who’s minding the shop today while you’re here? How do people decide what tattoo to get? What are the most popular? Are there any that you won’t do?

Before long, the blanket of anxiety in the room had lifted, there was laughter and several people were merrily chatting with their neighbors.

This conversation has stuck in my mind for many years. It seems to me a model of how to connect with people we meet. My guess is that the older woman was a church-goer. She had that church lady vibe about her – in the best way – a kind of unselfconscious openness and friendliness. But she wasn’t there with any kind of church agenda. She was simply offering no-strings-attached friendship to a much younger woman with whom she probably had very little in common.

I’ve reflected on what she did that we could learn from.

First, she took a risk. How did she know that the younger woman wouldn’t tell her to mind her own business? She didn’t know. But she initiated a conversation anyway. I thought that took courage.

Second, she took a genuine interest in the younger woman’s life – a life I’m sure she couldn’t imagine. She met her where she was. It might sound like she was prying, but really she wasn’t.

Third, she didn’t judge. She didn’t say, “Why in the world would someone get a tattoo” or, “I think tattoos are so ugly.” She invited her to share something of her world.

I don’t really know what the tattoo parlour woman was feeling at the time, or if she even remembers the conversation, but it seemed to me to be an act of genuine kindness.

Church people often express terror at the prospect of talking to someone they don’t know. What if I say the wrong thing? What if they reject me? What if seems like I’m being pushy?

This lady at the eye clinic demonstrated that it’s possible to simply invite someone into a place where they can share something about themselves, and that we can receive that sharing with grace and generosity. That’s how relationships begin and it’s through relationships that faith, hope and love are shared.

There is always the risk that our offer will be rejected.  In which case, says Jesus, you move on. But in these days of so much loneliness and isolation, it’s much more likely that offer of peace will be accepted.

This gave me a little insight into what I think Jesus meant when he told his followers to say “Peace be to this house.”  And a clue that might guide us as we seek to be the church today. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Church is Like A ...

“This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival
A joy, a depression, a meanness
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor
Welcome and entertain them all!
Be grateful for whoever comes
Because each has been sent as a guide.”

These words by the Persian poet Rumi were recorded by the band Coldplay. The poem compares his life to a guesthouse where different experiences come to stay for a while. All need to be welcomed, because all have something to teach. 

This is an excellent example of an analogy. 

Analogies are verbal or visual comparisons. 

“All the world’s a stage.” (Shakespeare)
"My love is like a red, red rose." (Burns)
“Life is like a box of chocolates.” (Forrest Gump)

Analogies are powerful tools for learning and imagining. Like this visual analogy comparing cigarettes to a shotgun.
Analogies are becoming increasingly important in the church. When things are clear and straightforward and everyone understands what they mean, you don’t need analogies so much. But in times like these, when Christian faith and the place of the church in society is becoming less clear, analogies can be really helpful.

Some common examples – “The church is a family.” “The church is a business.” In a recent blog post, I compared the church to an airport.

The important thing about analogies, however, is knowing that they have their limits. You can only push them so far. 

We can learn something about the church by comparing it to a family, or a business, or an airport. But we get into trouble if we forget that in certain important respects, the church is not like a family, a business, or an airport.

In my last two posts, I drew analogies from the world of marketing. The demise of Sam the Record Man can teach us that, while our core message stays the same, the way we deliver it needs to change. The recent success of A & W can teach us the importance of focusing on the essentials.

Analogies between the church and marketing can be helpful when it comes to the question of How? How do we communicate? How do we connect?

But those analogies can break down when it comes to another question -- Why?
Why does the church exist? 

Businesses exist to sell products to consumers. But the church exists – well, why does the church exist? To worship God? To teach people to love God and love their neighbour? To continue the work of Jesus in the world? All of the above?

Marketing analogies aren’t helpful if they make us think of people primarily as customers to be sold something. All too often, that’s how churches do think. What “product” can we come up with that will attract people to come in and part with their time and their money? How can we stop losing “market share” to the mega-church down the street, or the shopping mall?

Peter Drucker
The great management guru Peter Drucker said that the difference between a for-profit business and an organization like a church is in the nature of their product. The product of the business is a good or service that they sell to a customer. 

The church’s product is people. What churches “produce,” Drucker says, is transformed individuals. They are the people who are changed, equipped and inspired to live out the Good News in their daily lives.

Used properly, analogies can deepen our understanding and awaken our imaginations. Just remember that any analogy can only be pushed so far.  

Monday, March 6, 2017

Lessons From The Great Root Bear

On the way home from the airport after a recent vacation, my wife and I stopped at a brand –new, just-opened A & W.

While many fast food chains have seen their business plateau, A & W is going through a resurgence.

This surprises me. A & W always struck me as decidedly second-tier in the fast food world. The ones I was familiar with tended to be a little shabby, the staff disorganized and the food expensive. Their mascot was a brown and orange-clad, pear-shaped bear who waddled along to a goofy tune played on the tuba. A bit corny and

So what's gotten into A & W?

It’s simple, really. First, they identified one thing that people really care about – food safety and quality. And second, they started to deliver that one thing simply, clearly and consistently.

A & W recognized that people are willing to pay more for food they trust. They committed to serving only drug- and hormone-free meat. And then they communicated that message over and over and over again.

A & W did not try to become something other than what they were – a place to get a hamburger. And while other chains expanded their menus, A & W stuck to relatively limited range of choices.

But they focused single-mindedly on one thing -- the quality of their meat.
And it seems to have worked. A & W plans to open 250 new stores across Canada over the next few years.

I’ve noticed a few other changes as well. The A & W I recently visited had a little electronic keypad near the door with a customer satisfaction survey that has four questions and can be completed in 5 seconds. The results of that day’s surveys were visibly displayed on screens at the order counter.

Also a beautifully-produced video about their food sources – a family-owned ranch in Alberta, an environmentally-sustainable greenhouse in California -- was running on a loop in the restaurant area.

A & W also has relatively low franchise fees and many of their new franchisees are millennials in their 20s and early 30s. That is the age group that consumes the most fast food, and younger owners can be expected to be attuned to their needs.

So, what are the takeaways (so to speak) for the church?

A couple of words of caution: I’m not making any judgments about whether eating a Teenburger is actually any better for you than eating a Big Mac, or just a marketing ploy. And, building a Christian community and selling burgers aren’t the same thing. We need to be clear about what A &W can and can’t teach us.

But I think there are a couple of lessons many congregations could learn here.

First, find something that people really care about that you can respond to. And second, commit to doing that one thing consistently well.

The experience of A & W shows that there is more than one way to succeed. The prevailing wisdom today says that people demand choice and churches need to get with the program and offer people more and more options in worship, programming, music, etc. But A & W is succeeding not by getting more diverse but by getting more focused on one thing that really matters to people. I observe congregations trying to do too much and ending up not doing anything particularly well. In these times of diminishing resources, we need to learn how to focus. 
It would be better to find one or two things that make a real difference to people’s lives, commit to doing those things consistently and well, and let people know that’s what you’re good at, over and over and over again. Whether it’s hospitality, prayer practices, young families, seniors, creative worship, ministry to a particular population, or one specific aspect of any of these things, find those one or two areas in which you are able to excel and make those your priority.

And let people know about it in any way you can.

What are those one or two things at your church?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Lessons from Sam the Record Man

Sam the Record Man, Toronto
When I was a teenager, one of my very favorite things to do was to make a pilgrimage a couple of times a year to 347 Yonge Street in Toronto – the home of Sam the Record Man.

For a kid who loved music, Sam’s was like dying and going to heaven. Room upon endless room filled with every record you could imagine – and many you could not imagine even existed until you found them in the bins at Sam’s. I’d go with my Christmas money, or my savings from part time jobs and browse for hours, until I’d settled on the two or three precious LPs I could afford to buy.

Once I left a brand new record in the back window of the car where it melted into a warped, gooey mess. I was so devastated by my loss that I dissolved into tears.

I remember the feeling of sadness and loss when Sam’s flagship store closed in 2007. Precious memories. The end of an era.

Of course, the demise of Sam’s didn’t mean I could no longer get music. In fact, quite the opposite. Retail record stores failed not because people lost interest in music, but because there were far easier and cheaper ways to access it.

Now, I pay $10 a month for a streaming service that gives me access to more music than I
will ever be able to listen to, on my cell phone, at the click of a button.

Sam’s was a delivery vehicle. It was a means to an end. When better means came along, there was no need for Sam’s.

Sam the Record Man was part of the same vanishing world as the church I grew up in – Lincoln Avenue United in Cambridge. That church played an even bigger role in my life than Sam’s, and when it closed in 2002, the feeling of loss was the similar, but more powerful.

But both Sam’s and that church closed for the same reason. People were no longer coming.
And I hear the same question asked over and over again in our churches today: “Why? Why aren’t people coming? Why aren’t they interested in anymore?”

I’m convinced that’s the wrong question. Or, at least, it’s not the first question. Just like the closing of  Sam the Record Man didn’t mean people had lost interest in music, so the closing of our churches doesn’t necessarily mean people have lost interest in what churches claim to offer – spiritual nourishment, guidance, friendship, prayer, community, God. People, we’re told, are as spiritually hungry as they have ever been. It’s just that we keep offering it in a format that no longer works. Oh, it still works for some of us, which is why we still have churches. But fewer and fewer people are willing to travel to a fixed location at one fixed time in the week to satisfy their search for God.

Most of our churches follow a script that hasn’t really changed much since the 1950s: a Sunday morning worship service, plus midweek groups and activities, all in the church building. That’s the equivalent of telling people that, if they want music, they have to drive to a record store to get it. It’s preserving the form and neglecting the content.

Now, I want to be careful. I don’t want to suggest that the church should become like Amazon – one click shopping in the privacy of your home. And I don’t want to suggest that something precious hasn’t been lost in the age of instant connection and information. Downloading an album from Apple Music is not the same experience as a trip to Sam’s.

The point is that there are changes happening that are way bigger than we are, and there is no way for us to turn them back.

The music industry to turn the clock back. They tried to resist the shift from hard recordings on CDs to music downloaded from the internet. They even managed to close down the original file-sharing website, Napster, after a costly court battle. But they couldn’t resist the tide of change. Ironically, by resisting rather than seeking ways to work with new formats and technologies, they hurt their own cause.

If churches want to connect with people in new ways, they need to learn about the ways in which people, especially young people, connect. And they need to think long and hard about the new tools, the new “delivery systems” that might bring the Good News to people in fresh ways.

Otherwise, Sam’s fate will be our own. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Capitalizing on Assets

The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has an interesting theory about the difference
Hernando de Soto
between rich and poor countries. It’s not that poorer countries lack assets. It’s that they lack capital.

An asset is something you possess. Even very poor countries, de Soto argues, have a wealth of assets. What they don’t have are the mechanisms to turn their assets into capital – to unlock the potential of those assets to generate greater wealth.

For example, a house is an asset. It provides protection from elements, a place to sleep at night, prepare meals, store your belongings and raise a family. If your house is near other houses, it provides you with a place in the community.

But if that house is a corrugated metal shack in an illegal squatter settlement on the edges of mega city, it will never be anything more than a roof to keep the rain out. That asset is inert. 

On the other hand, if you have legal title to that house, it can do many things in addition to providing shelter. It can be used as collateral to borrow money in order to finance an education, start a business, or boost the economy. It is an identifiable address that gives its owner access to a wide range of public services, It generates taxes that support everything from reliable utilities to police protection – all the things that make communities safe and liveable. That asset becomes a generator of greater wealth and opportunity.

Poor countries may be rich in assets, but they lack the financial mechanisms and legal system to turn those assets into wealth-generating capital.

At least that’s de Soto’s theory. And I’m not an economist, so I can’t judge how true it is.
However, de Soto’s ideas made me think of an intriguing parallel in the area, not of economic capital, but of “social capital.” Social capital refers to the connections between people that make human communities possible.

Churches are rich in social capital. They have a wealth of interpersonal connections. And they are rich in assets – far richer than they may realize. But often, churches don’t know how to capitalize on those assets to generate growth and fruitfulness. Their assets aren’t being used to their fullest potential.

Take, for example, that basic church asset -- friendliness. I don’t know of a church whose members don’t think of themselves as friendly. And that is a vital asset. After all, who wants to go to an unfriendly church?

Friendliness can be a precious commodity in today’s culture of loneliness. And it’s often our smaller churches who have this asset in the greatest abundance.

But many churches don’t know how to get the most out of their innate capacity for friendliness. They lack the means of sharing that asset with people outside their own circle, of leveraging that asset to generate a greater wealth of meaningful relationships. With visitors or with people outside the church, they don’t know how to move from a polite greeting, to an open conversation, to significant relationships – to move, in other words, from “friendliness” to “friendship.”

This problem begins with the question of purpose. We have been conditioned over generations to think that the end game is how to attract people into the church – and that the only really valid measure of success is how many show up on Sunday morning. Many a youth ministry or outreach project has been labelled a failure because it doesn’t increase worship attendance.

Congregational assets may be producing in ways that we don’t count because we aren’t looking for them. We don’t see the many ways in which people experience hope, healing and the presence of God through contact with Christians because those people don’t follow the expected path to church involvement.

A critical task for churches these days is to take stock of their assets – not just buildings and trust funds, but the capacity of their people to represent Jesus to those to who do not yet know him.

But a second and equally critical task is to come up with simple, practical, effective ways of sharing those assets with others so that Christ’s ministry is extended. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

From Judgment to Curiosity

This is my granddaughter Nina. Nina is two-and-half. 

The very best thing about being a grandparent is that you get to relive the amazing journey through childhood, without being distracted by exhaustion or overburdened with responsibility.

And what fascinating creatures two-year-olds are!

How does she do that without throwing her back out?”

“How does she fall down like that and not break something?”

“How does she SLEEP like that!?”

What has really captured me about all my grandchildren, though, is their limitless curiosity.

What’s THAT SOUND?” “That’s the furnace coming on, Nina.”

“What’s THAT THING?” “That’s a dust bunny, Nina.”

"What's Grandma DOING?"  "She's going to the washroom, Nina." 

Everything, from a candle snuffer to a cracker crumb creates a moment of joyous discovery.
That capacity for curiosity seems to diminish, though, with age. It’s easy, over time, to acquire a “Been there done that” attitude. We live near Niagara Falls. I’m always taken aback at how awestruck visitors are when they see the Falls for the first time. I shouldn’t be. The Falls are amazing. But for locals, it’s kind of ho hum.

Betty Pries is a well-known mediator and conflict management specialist who is known to many churches in Waterloo Presbytery. I heard Betty say something at a workshop that really stuck with me.

She said that, in high stress or conflicted situations, we should strive to “move from judgment to curiosity.”

Moving from judgment to curiosity. 

Judgment is essential. It’s one of the key components of a moral life. Every time we choose right over wrong, or better over worse, we exercise judgment.

But judgment can harden into a shell that locks us and others into one place, ridgid and immovable. Judgment can make us lazy. Rather than making the effort to truly know and understand someone, we make a snap judgment. “Oh, she’s (fill in the blanks.) What do you expect?” We make snap judgments that close down our sense of curiosity about the other, and the potential for creating a relationship.

Curiosity comes naturally to Nina. I need to work at it. We need to work to maintain that sense of curiosity about one another:

“I wonder what he meant by that?”

“I wonder what made her react in that way?”

“I wonder what’s going on in his life right now?”

“I wonder what it would be like to be in her place?”

Curiosity can move us past the fixed certainties of judgment to a place of openness and wonder.

Christians have spent two thousand years pondering the meaning of Jesus’ cryptic saying that his followers must “become like little children.” Jesus’ words could mean many things, but one thing I believe they mean is that we need to continue cultivating a sense of curiosity about the world around us, and the people who cross our paths.